What is development?


In multiple academic writings concerning development, the author begins by stating that defining development is a ‘contentious issue’. Most then go on to disparage the vague nature and unknown expanse of development. To me, the rainbow of opinions of those ‘in the business’ about development, ranging from inspiring optimism to critical realism are fascinating. For a ‘beginner’ to the concept of development these vast opportunities for exploration into a multitude of specialisms and attitudes are simultaneously perplexing and invigorating.


Academics are varying in their approach and attitude towards development. Some, as Cornwall identifies, such as Chambers, Uvin and Toye, are progressive and positive, using terms such as ‘good change’, ‘responsible well-being’ (Chambers, 1997: 1743), and ‘rights based’ (in Cornwall et al., 2010: 13). These academics are countered by Rist and Sachs’ pessimism in which development is a ‘vague’, ‘myth’ (Ibid; Rist, 2007: 485). For example, Rist and the World Bank challenge Chambers’ idea of ‘sustainable change’, labelling it an oxymoron, recognising that the traditional idea of economic and social growth is ‘inevitably unsustainable’ (World Bank, 2004). The fact that participants in the field of development itself are so polar in their opinions creates a fundamental obstacle to effective, harmonized progress.


The rich and the poor: The caption on this image was ‘Paris Hilton posing with a little girl in South Africa’


Similarly, the multitude of specialisms found within ‘development’ creates a further sense of ambiguity and complexity to a discipline that many may pass as simplistic. I may consider development to focus on non-income dimensions of human welfare as encompassed in the UNDP’S ‘Human Development index’: religion, education, healthcare and community (in Chang, 2010: 1). Conversely, the British public, it is said, tends to define development as ‘the role of governments and individuals in rich countries in helping poor people in developing countries’, the focus being on the economically undeveloped connotations of the ‘poor’ (Glennie, 2009: 2). As with opinions of the success of development, the haziness of the boundaries of development are troublesome, leading to debate about the extent of the role of NGOs and other developmental bodies.


However, I would challenge Rist’s cynicism when he claims that development is too ‘vague’ (Rist, 2007: 486). This ambiguity has allowed the World Bank, even as a dominant economic body, to incorporate ‘quality of life: access to education and health care, employment opportunities’ and so on into their definition of ‘development’ (World Bank, 2005). If development was fenced into the realm of solely economics, human rights or one of the other multitude of specialisms within development, I believe progress would be unavoidably narrow and ineffective. Nevertheless, this may in turn lead to the partisanship of development towards a Western definition, consequentially rousing the idea of the white saviour. Nietzsche’s relevant proposition that ‘all things are subject to interpretation; whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth’ is a frightening, yet realistic, idea reminiscent of colonial justification of atrocities through Western values (in Cornwall et al., 2010: 12). It also brings us back to the idea of the scope of development, creating an image of the concept itself being one that develops and evolves relative to its context and its driving forces.


The ambiguity of development, for me, provides a benefit and a weakness; it may allow for a wider expanse of progression and exploration into new methods of progress but also, as Nietzche is implying, may allow for the exploitation of the term to justify actions that are, essentially, counter-productive, self-motivated and possibly harmful.



Chambers, Robert (1997) ‘Responsible Well-being: A Personal Agenda for Development’,      World Development, Vol. 25(11): 1743.

Chang, Ha-Joon (2010) ‘Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark: How development has disappeared from today’s‘development’ discourse’, (2010) in S. Khan & J. Christiansen (eds.), Towards New Developmentalism: Market as Means rather than Master (Routledge, Abingdon).

Cornwall, Andrea and Eade, Deborah (2010) ‘Deconstructing Development Discourse Buzzwords and Fuzzwords’.

Glennie, Alex, Straw, Will and Wild, Leni (2009) Understanding Public Attitudes to Aid and Development, London: ODI and IPPR.

Rist, Gilbert (2007) ‘Development’, Development in Practice, 17(4-5):485-491.

World Bank (2004), ‘What Is Development’, Beyond Economic Growth.


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